Director Wu Tianming in the Eyes of Zheng Dongtian, Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige
Art Exchange VOL.01/2014|By Li Bo


Wu Tianming


The Poster of the Film The King of Mask


The Film Old Well Directed by Wu Tianming Featured Zhang Yimou

Wu Tianming, an old boy in Chinese film circle, ended his life of 75 years on March 4, 2014. 

Just like Sun Wangquan featuring Zhang Yimou in his film Old Well, Wu Tianming is an obstinate man with one-track mind, a simple and cloddish laborer from Northwest China and an ordinary dreamer who prefers faith to life. 

From a literary youngster in the countryside to a mediocre actor of Xi’an Film Studio (XFS), from a well-known director of “the 4th Generation” to unusual remaining years, Wu Tianming leads a dramatic life like a parabola with ups and downs. Whether at the splendid acme or at the lonely slump, he never complains but face his destiny with his invariable detached smile. 

With limited production, every film by Wu Tianming embodies his compassion for hard times and people’s misery as profound ideological connotations. His representative works Life, Old Well and The Mask King outline each period’s memory and his penetrating insight turns XFS into a base for upcoming young directors where “the 5th Generation” such as Zhang Yimou, Huang Jianxin and Tian Zhuangzhuang started their art careers. Under his leadership, XFS witnessed a rapid prominence, and a series of masterpieces such as Red Sorghum, The Black Cannon Incident, The Horse Thief, Swordsman in Double Flag, Wild Mountains, The Price of Frenzy and Chess King constituted “Prime Time of XFS”. 

Unexpected Director 

In 1939, Wu Tianming was born in Sanyuan County of Shaanxi Province. “I had a special interest in watching films as early as in my childhood. I often quit breakfast to save money or took some money from my father’s pocket just for the sake of film. I was immediately absorbed by the magic artistic charm of film upon seeing the film Song of Sea by former USSR. From that day on, I was determined to be engaged in film production”. In a collection of documents titled The Footprint of Dream, Wu Tianming recalled his beginning of film career. 

In that impoverished period, Wu Tianming exchanged his new cotton-padded shoes in the freezing winter just for three consecutive tickets of the film Song of Sea, only to find both his feet cramped in coldness. In 1960, before graduation from high school, Wu, without informing his family, stealthily enrolled into the training class of XFS. However, his family saw through his trick at last and his grandpa, with a stick in hand, shouted in stamping, What a disgrace that I brought up a clown!” 

I hardly intended to take up acting when I registered the training class because I know I was not qualified with homely appearance, short size and dark skin. I just wanted to enter the circle of film as my first step into this career.” Wu confessed in his memoire. After acting several trivial roles in some films, Wu began to plot about his future. However, the following series of political campaigns suspended his plan. 

In 1974, Wu Tianming, at the age of 35, was admitted into the Department of Acting and Directorship jointly organized by Beijing Film Academy and Central Academy of Drama. Owing to political campaign, teachers dared not give a lecture and therefore Wu was arranged to follow the famous director Cui Wei in Beijing Film Studio. The personality and artistic temperament of Cui Wei then exerted an in-depth impact upon Wu Tianming. 

Upon graduation, Wu Tianming returned to XFS where he took up directorship in his profession. After two co-directorship with Teng Wenji in the films The Thrill of Life and Family Relationship, Wu finally won the opportunity to direct a film independently. In 1984, his film A River without Buoy won the Second Prize of Excellent Film conferred by Ministry of Culture and Central Film Award of East and West at Hawaii International Film Festival, which was the first award-winning film of XFS at international arena. In 1985, his film Life won the Best Feature Film Award of the 8th People’s Film Hundred Flower Awards and the hero Gao Jialin became a profile of intellectual in rural areas at that time. 

Then Wu entered the summit of his film creation. 

A Good “Boss” of “the 5th Generation” 

In 1983, Wu Tianming, who was directing the film Life, got to know that his superiority wanted him to be head of XFS. At that time, XFS ranked the last nationally in film copies distribution and no films from XFS ranked in the top 10 of best-selling but 3 films out of the bottom 7 came from XFS. To be head of XFS then seemed to be like a hot potato, which smelled perfect but felt too hot to handle. Thinking it over and again, Wu Tianming didn’t want to resign himself to fate, and with his persistence, signed on this risky agreement. 

The key of an organization’s development lies in talents.” Abiding by such a principle, Wu Tianming was bold in promoting new talents in films and aroused a “Youthful Storm” in XFS, which gave a shock to the film circle of China and even the world. A great batch of famous directors, who were later called the 5th Generation”, such as Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Huang Jianxin and He Ping came to the fore. To this day, all those directors will respectably call Wu Tianming Boss”. 

In 1986, Wu Tianming showed his boldness again in changing Zhang Yimou who was a cameraman into a leading actor in his film Old Well. Zhang still recalls that the village was then named Old Well Village” where many peasants were too poor to feed themselves. At the intervals of film shooting, Wu Tianming called on the whole cast to donate for purchasing dried corn for those villagers. One night, Wu, together with Zhang Yimou and some of staff, carried dried corn to every and each household. “During the course, he was silent, dropped the bag down and just left. A peasant was so touched that he got on his knees in front of Wu. With a simple smile, he helped that peasant up and left.” Zhang Yimou said, “That was the compassion of my ‘Boss’, 100 percent from the bottom of his heart”. 

Later, the film Old Well  won many domestic awards and international awards at international film festivals at Tokyo, Italy and Hawaii, which marked Wu’s summit of profession and Zhang Yimou’s nirvana in artistic creation. During the shooting of Old Well, Zhang Yimou once told Wu Tianming that he intended to shoot a film adapted from the novel Red Sorghum by Mo Yan. As Wu had read the original novel and knew its excellence, he immediately approved this suggestion. Then Zhang Yimou rushed to Gaomi of Shandong Province for inspection, only to find that there was not a single sorghum at all as was described in the novel. When he returned to XFS, Zhang proposed for some fund to plant sorghum. As the then official procedure went, only with the approval of screenplay, and the approval at Office Meeting of Head and Standing Committee could the Department of Finance provide cash. As a matter of fact, Zhang Yimou had no screenplay at all. Then Wu Tianming turned to some friends in XFS for gathering 30000 RMB for Zhang to plant sorghum. “It was indeed against the regulation of XFS, and he was risking his life” Zhang admitted. 

In the period of planned economy, a head of a film studio always decided on the fate of a film and a filmmaker. “In my memory, boss’ acted immediately and resolutely in a simple and sincere 85manner. He is a man of business, caring expert for young generation and their creation. In a word, he is a good judge of talent for me and for the whole 5th generation.” Zhang Yimou said, “he is always vigorous and optimistic like a youngster. Regardless of any kind of difficulty, his dream for films is like a pile of burning fire, never intended to cease”. 

Chen Kaige’s memory about Wu Tianming can date back to 1984 when Chen was shooting his virgin film Yellow Earth. Deep in desperation caused by financial deficit, Chen Kaige suddenly thought of Wu Tianming and had to try his luck in the shooting place of the film Life. “He didn’t know us either. When learning that we were starving, he ordered to prepare meals for us. During our talk, he realized our lack of money and right away allocated 2000 RMB to us and lent us a jeep for more than a week” Chen Kaige recalled. In 1987, thanks to Wu Tianming’s support, Chen Kaige directed his representative works in his early days King of the Children, an art film full of cultural analytic spirits. “in the 1980s, Chinese films commonly cared for national hardship, the destiny of labored people and the future of nation and society. Boss’ was the very supporter for this kind of film.” Chen Kaige said, “His distinct individuality and strong personal charm did influence many youngsters’ choice. Under his encouragement, plenty of young filmmakers were engaged in passionate artistic creation”. 

In face of so many praises, Wu Tianming responded in this way, “People tend to call me godfather or leader of ‘the 5th Generation’, but what I did at that time was nothing but to lend a hand to those young directors such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. Their current achievement has nothing to do with me. Now I took their advantage and gained recognition thanks to them. Thus I owe them a lot”. 

Old Man without Compromise 

Zheng Dongtian, another director of “the 4th Generation”, met with Wu Tianming on February 12 for the last time. On that day, two senior citizens in their 70s came to Wanda Cineplex Tiantongyuan Branch as appointment to view two best-selling films in the Spring Festival. When the two film were over, they gazed at each other, without any word. A long time passed before Wu Tianming asked Zheng Dongtian with his eyes popped, “What’s the matter with these two films?” As Zhang Yimou mentioned, Wu Tianming didn’t have a happy old age because he felt as if his ideal was far from being realized. Zheng Dongtian had similar opinion. Obviously, he could never imagine such a film with a box office of hundred million per day.” Zheng Dongtian said, “To tell the truth, Wu and I are already left behind the current fashion, unable to understand today’s films. What we fail to understand might have its reason in existence. However, Wu won’t give in and still want to voice our generation’s standings through our films”. 

With such an obstinate will, Wu Tianming dedicated his last film All Birds Homage to Phoenix. Though selected as the opening film of Golden Rooster and Hundred Flowers Film Festival and won Special Jury Award, this art film had hardly any attention from the society. “As it is impossible for most of us to direct a film, this film might be the last one of ‘the 4th Generation’.” Zheng Dongtian concluded, “This film, in a sense, has a strong metaphor”. In this film, Tao Zeru acted as an elder instrumentalist of Suona for wedding and funeral, and his ultimate piece was the melody titled All Birds Homage to Phoenix. “However, you can’t buy this melody with your money, and this elderly would perform for the one that he supposes deserved.” Zheng Dongtian explained, “That symbolizes the basic attitude of ‘the 4th Generation’ towards film—expression of hearty feelings only”. 

Wu Tianming once criticized the new productions by Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige in a direct way, which both of them took naturally without annoyance. “The rise of capitals and market has aroused great changes in the Chinese films, to which ‘boss’ felt unused. Nevertheless, he was unable to change such a situation and he had to return to his ideal.” Chen Kaige sighed. “In this age when film is kidnapped by box office, I made commercial attempts like many other peers. When meeting with ‘boss’, he seldom talked about my works in recent decade. I’m fully aware that he despised those commercial films and he might imagine that some day we direct some films in our favors.” Zhang Yimou said, “After I learned the bad news of his pass away, I have made up my mind to make every film of mine as perfect as possible in accordance with his aspiration, requirement and passion, which might be what he wanted most”. 

Zheng Dongtian still remembered clearly that on May 23, 1985 a heavy rain poured instantly at the award ceremony of the 8th People’s Hundred Flowers Film Award held in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province. 12000 teachers and students from Sichuan University stood in circles around the auditorium with raincoats and straw hats, reluctant to leave. “They were waiting to see the film Life directed by Wu Tianming until it was dark.” Zheng Dongtian recalled. After viewing this film, students shouted Long live the Life”, “Long live the Film” and even “Long live Wu Tianming”. “After Tianming’s death, a reporter from a paper press in Chengdu called me, asking anything sensational to publicize,” Zheng Dongtian said, “I told him to find Chengdu’s newspaper on May 23, 1985 to see what Wu Tianming meant then. The difference between that story and the current film with revenue of hundred million RMB will tell you the difference between Wu Tianming’s generation and the current generation. 

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